East meets west with harmonium-playing Shilpa Ray 

A few years ago, waifish Indian-American rocker Shilpa Ray was getting off a New York subway train at its last stop, in a huge, slow-moving mass when, she says, a “Latina chick takes her knuckles, grinds them against my back and growls ‘Move faster!’”

She turned around, grabbed her hair and the two started going at it, until a couple broke them apart. Ray adds, “She was going to beat the hell out of me, I could tell. But I’m like a bitchy small dog — I’ll always step up.”

The scene illustrates the scrapper’s credo: Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.

It also explains why — as Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers, who play San Francisco on Saturday — she attacks her weapon of choice, the traditional Indian harmonium, with an almost feral abandon.

On her latest assault, “Teenage and Torture,” she tears into pet peeves like online porn (“Hookers”), the fashion and beauty industry (“Venus Shaver,” “Stick It to the Woman”), and even her own chilly experience at “The Chelsea Clinic Physical.”

It started in her New Jersey childhood, when — mistaken as Iraqi — she was regularly pelted with beer cans by white hooligans.

“It was the kind of racism that nobody really talks about,” she says.

At home, her old-school parents banned Western music, had her vocally train in classical Indian styles and presented her with an ostensibly PC harmonium instead of an electric guitar. Big mistake.

Ray, who became a secret Goth in high school, still discovered the Cramps, Stooges and Joy Division. “My sister and I had this system of going to the public library and sticking CDs in books that my parents approved of, books about turtles or nature,” she says.

“So we’d sneak them in the house and listen to them when my folks went off to work. And every time we heard the garage door opening? Rock ’n’ roll time was over.”

With her harmonium in tow, Ray, 31, hit the Big Apple, first as a solo artist, then as a bandleader. “And trying to explain how I wanted something to sound was like East meets West,” she says. “Because Indian time signatures are completely different.”

Ray currently works two non-Hookers jobs in New York, by day at a denim store, by night as a nightclub doorgirl/bouncer. “I’ve calmed down a lot,” she says. “But I’ve still got a sharp tongue, and if you rub me the wrong way I’ll take out your Achilles heel and just go for it!”


Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers

Opening for Man Man

Where: Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $18
Contact: (415) 474-0365, www.ticketfly.com

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Tom Lanham

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